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TRENDS : New technology on machines and sergers makes sewing faster and easier. So go back to spool.

July 09, 1994|JANICE L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Home sewing has gone high-tech. A new generation of machines has tiny computer screens, track balls and interchangeable pro grams. They can switch from straight stitch to buttonholes to fancy embroidery without complicated attachments. Then there's the serger, a smaller machine that uses up to five cone-shaped spools of thread at once.

Sound intimidating? Perhaps. But those who have made the leap to computerized machines and sergers say sewing has never been easier or more exciting.

Such enthusiasm for the new machines is a godsend for the home-sewing industry, which has suffered from lax sales and declining consumer interest since the 1970s. But now the American Home Sewing & Craft Assn. is preparing to revamp sewing's homespun image--actress/model Lauren Hutton has been hired as national spokeswoman--and attract new recruits. A particular emphasis will be placed on home decor, because pillows, drapes and bed fashions are easy projects for beginners and make the coveted "designer look" affordable.

So what are these new machines, and why should those with little time to sew be excited about them?

First, there's the serger, which sews seams at 1,500 stitches per minute, trims off excess fabric and finishes raw edges all in one pass.

Sergers have been around for more than 40 years in commercial sewing operations, but scaled-down versions for the home were developed within the past 10 years.

In addition to sewing faster, the serger makes a stronger seam than conventional sewing machines. Its system of needles and loopers forms a network of interlocking stitches that extend over the edge of the seam, which is why the serger is sometimes called an overlock machine.

A similar seam sewn on top of the fabric is called a flatlock, commonly seen on T-shirts, sweat shirts and exercise wear. Slow to catch on, the serger is now considered indispensable by many home-sewing enthusiasts.

"I use mine constantly," said Sherri Wolf, who teaches home-decorating sewing at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. "It's 10 times faster and makes things so much easier. Once you own one, you'll sew more," said Wolf, who is making drapes for her home almost exclusively on a serger. "I would have never attempted this without it."

For everyone who has wrestled with keeping even one spool of thread and one bobbin operating in concert, the serger with its four to five spools of thread can seem daunting.

Although an experienced seamstress, Wolf admits to being intimidated at first by the serger's multiple threads and complicated appearance.

"But once I got started on it, I couldn't live without it. The serger makes sewing so much easier that I can take on twice as many projects," said Wolf, who also teaches a course in overcoming serger phobia at Piecemakers Country Store in Costa Mesa.

Her simple approach has helped numerous serger owners understand the machine's threading and tension process. "It's a matter of knowing where each thread goes and what its purpose is in creating the seam," Wolf said. "A simple rule of thumb when adjusting tension is to tighten what appears too loose and loosen what appears too tight. Everyone catches on with a little practice and understanding."

Using a serger, you can sew a ruffled pillow sham in minutes because the serger's ruffling attachment will gather the fabric evenly as you sew, attach the ruffle and finish the seam all at once. The same process is used for sewing bed ruffles and valances.

Another home-decorating advantage is the serger's ability to sew a wider range of fabrics, including drapery sheers and medium-weight upholstery materials. In fact, the machine's narrow, rolled-edge stitch is often used to give ruffled curtain sheers the delicate, billowy appearance of custom-sewn draperies. Use of the serger's differential feed option allows the user to sew straight and even stitches on lightweight fabrics with no puckering.

However amazing the serger may seem, it can't do it all. For example, it doesn't do buttonholes or zippers. Sergers were designed to be used in tandem with conventional sewing machines, in which there are also many new developments.

Traditional sewing machine stitches are made by a mechanical cam linked to the sewing machine needle. Most are capable of only 40 kinds of stitches.

In computerized machines, the cam is replaced by a tiny computer chip, allowing a wider variety of stitch options and, in some machines, memory storage for custom-designed stitches.

The state-of-the-art Bernina 1630 computerized machine, for example, contains five pre-programmed alphabets, motifs and decorative borders that can be embroidered onto clothing and table and bed linens at the touch of a few buttons.

For those who want to design their own embellishments, the machine will allow you to "sketch" the stitch on its display screen using the machine's track ball, a process similar to drawing on a computer screen using a mouse.

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